1. Jody

    EPI is absolutely correct here. It’s your business and nobody else’s as to why you were out (as long as the HR people at your job know it’s a medical reason). One of my coworkers was recently out for 3 months on medical leave. She told me the exact reason she would be out; since she told people (in her out-of-office e-mail greeting) that I would be covering her projects. I anticipated people asking about her, so I asked my colleague how much information she wanted to give out (and I gave out nothing more than she authorized).

  2. V. T. Reynolds

    This is tricky. Most full-time workers spend more time with our co-workers than with their own families, so it is natural for many colleagues to inquire as to your well-being and to see how you are doing. I do not consider this nosy (unless the inquiry goes beyond the information you provide, as you indicate here). I agree with the advice: just say “it was a personal matter” and most decent people will leave it at that. As long as you do not live in a smaller town/city, then it is not likely that anyone will find out (I say this from experience: where I work, even if someone thinks it is private/a secret, it seems like everyone knows about it anyway!). However, what you have experienced is nothing you should be ashamed about, but unfortunately, there are some low-class people in every work place who can try to twist information about others to their own advantage. Stay classy!

  3. Gertrude

    “As for those of you who are thinking about asking a colleague for details of an illness: Don’t.”

    I can’t agree with this more, and I would extend it to apply to all injuries and illnesses. I was out of work recently following a terrible accident, and when I returned, every time I stepped out of my office (literally every bathroom, water cooler and snack break), I was reminded of my pain because of a constant battery of questions, some from people who I had never spoken to in my life! At the market, strangers would ask me what someone my age is doing walking with a cane.

    It was an invasion of my privacy. I tried saying “I would rather not talk about it, but thank you for your concern” and I found that most people still persisted! It put me in a very awkward and uncomfortable situation.

    Honestly, I have been through enough; my privacy was invaded enough (hospitals, doctors, therapy, etc.), and I am trying to get my life back. Furthermore, there is a law suit pending, and I cannot legally discuss the details of my accident!

    If I relay one message, it would be this:

    If I want to talk, I will find a way to bring it up. Instead, if you really want to, ask something open-ended like “How is your day going?”, or “How is being back at work going?” and respect my privacy.

  4. Gertrude

    Elizabeth, that’s totally fine, that’s a normal question. It leaves the stage open in case I want to talk about my injury, or I can just say “well, how about you?” I get frustrated in situations where folks don’t take the hint. For example, this conversation that occurred regularly with people in my building, some of whom I have never spoken with previously:

    Concerned person, upon seeing me in the hall: OH GOSH! What happened to YOU?!
    Me: I was injured but I’m back now, and I’m happy to be here. How have you been?
    Them: Pretty well. So wow! So what happened?
    Me: I’d rather not talk about it, but thank you for your concern. How has the seminar series been going?
    Them: Well, it must have been pretty bad, because I see you have a cane and are limping, was it an accident? Did you fall?
    Me: Really, I would rather not talk about it. I see the office got a new floor in my absence, I like what it does for the lighting in there….
    Them: It must be tough to talk about, huh? How long is your recovery time going to be? Are you in physical therapy?

    At that point, there is nothing that I can say that is not forceful, which is often perceived as rude. I understand that this is coming from concern (I would like to think it’s not just people being nosy). But, odds are, I am already dealing with a pretty significant level of pain, and am pretty crabby as-is because of it. I am probably trying to distract myself and not think about it. I wish more people read this thread and respected privacy and personal boundaries.

    • Jerry

      Gertrude: I sympathize with your situation. (Or is it empathize? Which one is it where you feel bad for what someone’s going through but you haven’t experienced it yourself?)

      In any case, in the situation you’ve described, I give you permission to be forceful. Tell someone “can you drop it?” If they continue, you can get more forceful as your imagination allows.

      Standing up for yourself is never rude. Let me draw an analogy that may be helpful — you’re out in public, and someone wants to mess with a child in your care. Would you do nothing on the theory that you don’t want to be rude, or would you assert yourself? If you can assert yourself in a physical situation where someone is physically abusive, you can certainly assert yourself when someone is verbally abusive.

      I hope this helps.

      • Elizabeth

        I agree, Jerry. I would look my interrogator straight in the eye and say a bit loudly – “I really don’t want to talk about it. Let’s move on.” It’s ok to be a little terse and very direct when someone is just not taking the hint.

        Oh, and “sympathize” was the word you were looking for.

      • Jody

        I totally agree with Jerry here. Gertrude, you’ve done everything (and more) to politely get away from the topic. After the 3rd time, I’d probably have said something like “didn’t you hear me say I don’t want to talk about it.” If people think you rude, so be it — they’re the rude ones, not you. The only other thing you could do is walk away without responding.

  5. Siobhan

    I have also been in the situation of returning after a break taken for personal reasons and being interrogated about it. (In fact, this only happened once, with a near-stranger; everyone else was incredibly kind and tactful and I was very, very grateful.) It was something I really did not want to discuss except with my nearest and dearest. I tried a few tactics while dealing with the onslaught, which lasted over 20 minutes!

    1. Humour, eg: ‘I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you'; ‘Plaaaaaaague! Run while you still can!'; ‘It was full moon. Hair sprouted all over my body, I grew fangs, started howling… you know the rest'; ‘I only came back to work to get away from people asking about my illness!’

    2. Obfuscation and postponement, eg: ‘Oh goodness, I’ve been asked that question so many times I might bore myself to death if I answer again!'; ‘I find it better not to discuss it'; ‘I might decide to discuss it when I’m feeling 100% again – not now’

    3. Polite refusal eg: ‘In fact I don’t like to talk about that'; ‘Please, let’s change the subject. This one upsets me'; ‘Even though you mean well, your question is rather intrusive. I’d rather leave my illness in the past’.

    4. Departure: I said the conversation was too difficult for me and left.

    I believe that by joking about it and trying to avoid the point at first, I failed to communicate my wish to be left alone and prolonged unnecessarily a very unpleasant experience; now I respond to unwelcome questions with a polite but direct statement that I do not want to talk about it, and a request to change the subject. I always try to say this in a way that shows I don’t blame the other person for asking, but just want them to know where I am. If they persist, I say ‘No, we can’t talk about this. I’ll see you around’, and walk away. It is really unforgivable to force someone to dredge through their private sorrows just to satisfy curiosity.

    As an aside, I learnt a great deal from that conversation about how vulnerable this kind of questioning can make a person feel. Going back to a familiar situation after a break can be awkward in itself; doing so when you aren’t at your best and then having someone probe around in your personal life without invitation is awful. I realised how much better and kinder it is to greet someone returning after illness or any personal difficulty with words such as ‘You’re back, I’m so glad! We missed you’.

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